Anthony Julius is a lawyer and writer. He is the author of T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form and Transgressions: The Offences of Art, and is currently writing a history of English anti-Semitism, to be published in 2007. Below Anthony discusses Bertrand Russell's Human Society in Ethics and Politics.
Anthony Julius on Human Society in Ethics and Politics by Bertrand Russell
I've taken the invitation to write about a favourite book as an opportunity to return to a book I haven't read for over 30 years. It was once - and for some months - my favourite book. What do I think of it now? I understand a favourite book to mean one that (a) you return to, for pleasure in the familiar, and in the expectation that it will disclose new riches, and (b) modifies in some important way how you think about something - some issue or cause - that really matters to you. It is not Scriptural in its authority; it's not a book that you live by. But it is much more than something you merely consume. It lodges itself in, and so changes, your mind.
Bertrand Russell's Human Society in Ethics and Politics was published in 1956, but much of it was written a decade earlier, just as the war was ending and in its immediate aftermath. I read the book in my mid-teens. My cousin Elizabeth had given me Russell's History of Western Philosophy as a 15th-birthday present. It was, as I now recall, my introduction to philosophy. I must have read other works of philosophy, because I had asked Liz for the Russell, though I can't now remember what these earlier books were. Anyway, I enjoyed the History a lot, so I began hunting out his other books, and I found this one. I read it in a single sitting, and then endlessly quoted from it in essays and arguments. It must have gone missing, because I see that the copy I now have I bought in Tel Aviv in 1982.
Russell asks how one can devise a defensible universal ethic, given the diversity of moral codes in the world. The good he defines as the satisfaction of desire. The general good is the only right end of action. There is no partial good, that is, the good of some group smaller than all mankind, which it is rational to substitute for the general good. He then considers the status of ethical disagreements. In the second part of the book, he passes to politics, and concludes with the recommendation of a world government, possessing a monopoly of force.
The book appealed to me for several reasons.
I liked the style of argument. It was calm, measured, open to reason, not coercive. It showed me a way of arguing, quite different from the hot-faced, angry exchanges with family members or the awkward, self-conscious exchanges with school friends. I also enjoyed his disparagement of religion. The book is full of ironic observations at the expense of the pious. I remember quoting the following to anyone I came across with a religious bent: 'There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths.' Last, I was impressed that the book had been written in the aftermath of World War II. It seemed to me that Russell had registered the impact of the war in his reasoning.
Re-reading the book now, more than 30 years later, I have a different view. I was expecting to enjoy it again. I was surprised at how much I disliked it, and why.
So far from appreciating it as a book about the war, I now recoil from the loftiness of Russell's perspective on the Nazis' crimes. He treats the Holocaust as no more than a readily available instance of a familiar moral problem - 'when Nazis say that it is good to torture Jews, and we say that it is bad, we do not feel as if we were merely expressing a difference of taste...' Russell's war-time examples are continuous with his other ones - contrasts he draws between (say) the Quaker and the head-hunter as ideal types, and so on. They don't stand out in the way they did when I first read the book. What appealed to me then now seems to me to be typical of a failure of a specifically English imagination to grasp the terrible singularity of the Holocaust. It is as if it had not taken place.
Or rather, that something other, and lesser, had taken place:
I do not think that the sum of human misery has ever in the past been as great as during the last twenty-five years. There was the Nazi campaign for the extermination of the Jews, there was the extermination by starvation of millions of Russian peasants, there were the great purges, and there are the vast camps of forced labour. And, as if this were not enough, the last few years have seen the extension of the same system to China. It can hardly be pretended that the Western Nations are redressing the balance by an increase of happiness, for there hangs over them all the dreadful threat of a war conducted by means of atomic and hydrogen bombs and with all the new refinements of cruelty that modern prison-camps have introduced.I puzzle over 'campaign'. Still, and notwithstanding this appalling list, there is no reflection in Russell's book on - let me put it like this - the ontology of evil (save to mock Thomas Arnold's preoccupation with it). He is not interested, that is, in evil's specific mode of existence. He puts the word 'wicked' in scare quotes. 'Wrong' actions are described merely as actions 'it is useful to blame'. He concludes the chapter on 'Sin' thus:
After the first world war the victors told the Germans that the guilt was wholly Germany's, and even forced them to sign a document by which they pretended to acknowledge their sole culpability. After the second world war Montgomery issued a proclamation telling German parents to explain to their children that British soldiers could not smile at them because of the wickedness of their fathers and mothers. This was, on both occasions, bad psychology and bad politics, of a sort that is encouraged by belief in the doctrine of "sin." We are all what our circumstances have made us, and if that is unsatisfactory to our neighbours, it is for them to find ways of improving us. It is very seldom that moral reprobation is the best way of achieving this object.It seems that for Russell, any notion of evil is dependent upon the notion of 'sin' and thus to be rejected as a residue of religion. Later on, in an argument that has an ugly, contemporary resonance, he writes:
When the Germans were defeated at the end of the First World War, there was a very widespread feeling that they ought to be punished, not only in order to reform them or in order to deter others from following their example, but also because it was just that such appalling sin should be followed by suffering. Undoubtedly this feeling helped to produce the folly of Versailles and the subsequent treatment of Germany... Versailles and its aftermath led to the Nazis and the Second World War.The book is both dated and yet also contemporaneous with us (but not, so to speak, in a good way). I find it almost unreadable and yet also, in its anticipation of current modes of thinking about terrorism and its 'causes', unpleasantly compelling. And what, I wonder, could I have been thinking, so many decades ago?
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]